Commentary on The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America
In this letter, written on January 1, 1851, Fredericka Bremer describes a slave market in New Orleans, Louisiana. She also observes two slave girls who were sent to jail because their master was bankrupt and they might be seized by creditors as the master's "property" to be held against his debt
The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America, by Fredericka Bremer
New Orleans, Louisiana, Jan. 1, 1851.
Good-morning! A good new year, my sweet sister, my sweet friend! May the morning of the new year shine brighter on you than it does on me, and the far North afford you a clear sun above the snowy, gleaming earth. Ah! a quiet sun-bright winter's day with us, when all the trees are white over with snow, and every thing shines and gleams kindly and cheerfully in that pure air—that air which is so light and invigorating to breathe—then to ramble forth, as I so often have done at this season, across the fiords and fields of the park, how glorious it was! But here, in this glorious South, it now rains and pours with rain incessantly! The beautiful day on which I last wrote had no successor. To-day we have sleet, and altogether bad weather. The young trees on the La Fayette Market look quite melancholy. The leaves hang on them like ratters. But I am very comfortable in my warm, light, excellent room, and there shines upon my chimney-piece a large bough full of the very sweetest—sweet in every way—little oranges; and beside them stand two large bottles of the genuine Louisiana grape-juice—New-year's gifts from kind new friends, who have brought summer and warmth into room and heart. I have sun enough on this new year, yes, and even a little more, to give away in case any body wanted it.
But I must tell you something about Bushkiton! Bushkiton is a festival which was celebrated annually by the Indians of the Mississippi in these southern regions, when the Europeans first intruded themselves here. It appears to me the most remarkable of all the festivals of the North American Indians, and some of its spiritual meaning might have been ingrafted beneficially upon the white race, which has now seized upon the soil of the red man.
This festival occurred at the close of the year, and continued eight days. Each day had its separate ceremony; but the principal features of the whole ceremonial were fasting, purification, and self-contemplation. It is said, in the narrative describing it, "that on these days (the third, fifth, and seventh, if I recollect right) the men sat silent in the market-place." Ashes played a principal part in the purifications; and it appears to me worthy of remark, that these ashes were to be conveyed to the warriors by young maidens who were still half children. The food, also, of which they partook during their fasts, was to be presented to them by these childish hands. The men—for the women are not mentioned at all—held also nocturnal dances by the light of the fire, during which they washed themselves with warm water, in which certain herbs and roots of a medicinal quality had been boiled. The seventh night's dance appears most symbolical and significant. On the seventh day the men again "sit silent in the market-place." The eighth is the last great day of purification. The men then ascend a bank by the river, and throw themselves headlong into it, diving down many times. After this they come out and reassume their every-day garments, manners, and occupations. It is remarkable, however, that after this time every thing which occurred before it is regarded as not having been. All neglect, all quarrels, great or small, between individuals of the nation, are to be forgotten, and life is regarded as if new born. Any one who, after this time, calls to remembrance any annoyance which occurred before it, or evinces any grudge, or cherishes ill will, must pay a fine. Bushkiton returns every year as a festival of reconciliation and renovation. How excellent, if all bitter memories whatever could be washed away by this Indian Lethe! And who shall deny but that Bushkiton, with its inward desire and outward labor, might not be a good help for such purpose.
We civilized people should do well by adopting the Bushkiton of the savages. And there is a custom in the United States, especially in their large cities, and it is said to flourish in New York and New Orleans, which probably may have its origin in the Indians' feast of reconciliation. In these cities, New-year's day is regarded, in some sort, as a day of renovation and reconciliation. New-year's visits are the means made use of. If any quarrel has arisen during the past year between two individuals or between two families, and if they have ceased to see one another or to speak to one another, a visit paid on New-year's day is sufficient, without any further explanation, to make all amicable again between them. And both sides are silently agreed to forget all that is past, and to let life begin anew.
The ladies of "la haute'volee" do not go out on this day, but sit at home, splendidly dressed in their drawing-rooms, which are decorated for the occasion, to receive gentlemen, who pay complimentary visits; and I have heard it said that many a gentleman who is blessed with a numerous acquaintance in good families makes himself quite ill by incessantly driving about on this day from one house to another, rushing up steps and down steps many hundred times, from morning till late at night.
One kind family among my new friends at New Orleans invited me to spend this day with them, that I might see the cheerful scene. But it would have wearied me, without affording me what I need on New-year's day. If however, there were here any genuine Indian Bushkiton, then would I gladly be present, that I might endeavor to forget. For this I would willingly plunge into the Mississippi, if I could only be certain of—coming up again! God's deep mercy shall be my Bushkiton!
And now, while the weather is bad, and the great world is paying visits and compliments, and polite gentlemen are sunning themselves in the beautiful smiles of elegant ladies, in gas-lighted drawing-rooms, I will, at my ease, converse with you about the occurrences of the last few days, about the slave-market and a slave-auction at which I have been present.
I saw nothing especially repulsive in these places excepting the whole thing; and I can not help feeling a sort of astonishment that such a thing and such scenes are possible in a community calling itself Christian. It seems to me sometimes as if it could not be reality—as if it were a dream.
The great slave-market is held in several houses situated in a particular part of the city. One is soon aware of their neighborhood from the groups of colored men and women, of all shades between black and light yellow, which stand or sit unemployed at the doors. Accompanied by my kind doctor, I visited some of these houses. We saw at one of them the slave-keeper or owner—a kind, good-tempered man, who boasted of the good appearance of his people. The slaves were summoned into a large hall, and arranged in two rows. They were well fed and clothed, but I have heard it said by the people here that they have a very different appearance when they are brought hither, chained together two and two, in long rows, after many days' fatiguing marches.
I observed among the men some really athletic figures, with good countenances and remarkably good foreheads, broad and high. The slightest kind word or joke called forth a sunny smile, full of good humor, on their countenances, and revealed a shining row of beautiful pearl-like teeth. There was one negro in particular—his price was two thousand dollars—to whom I took a great fancy, and I said aloud that "I liked that boy, and I was sure we should be good friends."
"Oh yes, Missis!" with a good, cordial laugh.
Among the women, who were few in number in comparison with the men (there might be from seventy to eighty of them), there were some very pretty light mulattoes. A gentleman took one of the prettiest of them by the chin, and opened her mouth to see the state of her gums and teeth, with no more ceremony than if she had been a horse. Had I been in her place, I believe that I should have bitten his thumb, so much did I feel myself irritated by his behavior, in which he evidently, no more than she, found any thing offensive. Such is the custom of the place.
My inquiries from these poor human chattels confined themselves to the question of whence they came. Most of them came from Missouri and Kentucky. As I was constantly attended by the slave-keeper, I could not ask for any biographical information, nor could I, in any case, have been certain that what I here received was to be relied upon.
In another of these slave-houses I saw a gentleman whose exterior and expression I shall never forget. He seemed to be the owner of the slaves there, and my companion requested permission for himself and me to see them. He consented, but with an air, and a glance at me, as if he would annihilate me. He was a man of unusual size, and singularly handsome. His figure was Herculean, and the head had the features of a Jupiter; but majesty and gentleness were there converted into a hardness which was really horrible. One might just as well have talked about justice and humanity to a block of stone as to that man. One could see by the cold expression of that dark blue eye, by those firmly-closed lips, that he had set his foot upon his own conscience, made an end of all hesitation and doubt, and bade defiance both to heaven and hell. He would have money. If he could, by crushing the whole human race in his hand, have converted them into money, he would have done it with pleasure. The whole world was to him nothing excepting as a means of making money. The whole world might go to rack and ruin so that he could but rise above it—a rich man, as the only rich and powerful man in the world. If I wanted to portray the image of perfected, hardened selfishness, I would paint that beautiful head. That perfectly dark expression of countenance, the absence of light, life, joy, was only the more striking because the complexion was fair; and the cheeks, although somewhat sunken, had a beautiful bloom. He seemed to be about fifty.
After having visited three slave-houses or camps, and seen some of the rooms in which the slaves were lodged for the night, and which were great garrets without beds, chairs, or tables, I proceeded to the hospital of New Orleans. It is a large institution, and appears to me well managed. There were some cholera patients in it. One young man and a young girl lay dying. I laid my hand upon their foreheads, but they felt it not. They had already sunk into the last sleep.
I dined on this day, the 30th of December, at the house of my countryman, Mr. S., who wished to give me a real New Orleans dinner; and, in particular, a favorite soup in Louisiana, called gumbo, prepared from a kind of groat somewhat resembling sago.
Mr. S. is a lively little man, with a Creole grace of demeanor, very loquacious and kind. He is married—a second marriage—to a French Creole of New Orleans, and has by her several most beautiful little boys, with dark eyes, and dark, flowing locks, like little French children. The wife was also lovely, an excellent, simple creature, who never before had seen an authoress, and now seemed somewhat astonished to find her like other people, able to talk like them also. She seemed to have an idea that a person who wrote a book must talk like a book.
The New Orleans dinner was remarkably good, and gumbo is the crown of all the savory and remarkable soups in the world—a regular elixir of life of the substantial kind. He who has once eaten gumbo may look down disdainfully upon the most genuine turtle soup. After dinner, my hostess, her sister, and myself had a charming gossip over the fire. It was a real refreshment both for tongue and ear to listen to, and to talk French after that unmelodious and confused English language.
In the evening I drank tea with a family of the name of C., planters of Louisiana. Deep sorrow for the loss of two promising children seemed to have depressed the father, and almost crushed the heart of the mother. One daughter, Julia, still remains. When I behold the dance of the moon-beams on the waves; when I perceive the scent of violets and the glance of the mild forget-me-not; when I see any thing which is lovely and full of life, full of innocence and the joy of existence, but which, at the same time, looks as if it would not long linger on earth, I shall think, Julia, of thee, and long to clasp thee once more to my heart, thou pale, lovely, beaming child of the South, and to hold thee yet on earth, that thy mother's heart may not break, and that thy father and thy home may yet have some light!
On the 31st of December I went with my kind and estimable physician to witness a slave-auction, which took place not far from my abode. It was held at one of the small auction-rooms which are found in various parts of New Orleans. The principal scene of slave-auctions is a splendid rotunda, the magnificent dome of which is worthy to resound with songs of freedom. I once went there with Mr. Lerner H., to be present at a great slave-auction; but we arrived too late.
Dr. D. and I entered a large and somewhat cold and dirty hall, on the basement story of a house, and where a great number of people were assembled. About twenty gentlemenlike men stood in a half circle around a dirty wooden platform, which for the moment was unoccupied. On each side, by the wall, stood a number of black men and women, silent and serious. The whole assembly was silent, and it seemed to me as if a heavy gray cloud rested upon it. One heard through the open door the rain falling heavily in the street. The gentlemen looked askance at me with a gloomy expression, and probably wished that they could send me to the North Pole.
Two gentlemen hastily entered; one of them, a tall, stout man, with a gay and good-tempered aspect, evidently a bon vivant, ascended the auction platform. I was told that he was an Englishman, and I can believe it from his blooming complexion, which was not American. He came apparently from a good breakfast, and he seemed to be actively employed in swallowing his last mouthful. He took the auctioneer's hammer in his hand, and addressed the assembly much as follows:
"The slaves which I have now to sell, for what price I can get, are a few home-slaves, all the property of one master. This gentleman having given his bond for a friend who afterward became bankrupt, has been obliged to meet his responsibilities by parting with his faithful servants. These slaves are thus sold, not in consequence of any faults which they possess, or for any deficiencies. They are all faithful and excellent servants, and nothing but hard necessity would have compelled their master to part with them. They are worth the highest price, and he who purchases them may be sure that he increases the prosperity of his family."
After this he beckoned to a woman among the blacks to come forward, and he gave her his hand to mount upon the platform, where she remained standing beside him. She was a tall, well-grown mulatto, with a handsome but sorrowful countenance, and a remarkably modest, noble demeanor. She bore on her arm a young sleeping child, upon which, during the whole auction ceremonial, she kept her eyes immovably riveted, with her head cast down. She wore a gray dress made to the throat, and a pale yellow handkerchief, checked with brown, was tied round her head.
The auctioneer now began to laud this woman's good qualities, her skill, and her abilities, to the assembly. He praised her character, her good disposition, order, fidelity; her uncommon qualifications for taking care of a house; her piety, her talents, and remarked that the child which she bore at her breast, and which was to be sold with her, also increased her value. After this he shouted with a loud voice, "Now, gentlemen, how much for this very superior woman, this remarkable, &c., &c., and her child?"
He pointed with his outstretched arm and fore-finger from one to another of the gentlemen who stood around, and first one and then another replied to his appeal with a short silent nod, and all the while he continued in this style:
"Do you offer me five hundred dollars? Gentlemen, I am offered five hundred dollars for this superior woman and her child. It is a sum not to be thought of! She, with her child, is worth double that money. Five hundred and fifty, six hundred, six hundred and fifty, six hundred and sixty, six hundred and seventy. My good gentlemen, why do you not at once say seven hundred dollars for this uncommonly superior woman and her child? Seven hundred dollars—it is downright robbery! She would never have been sold at that price if her master had not been so unfortunate," &c., &c.
The hammer fell heavily; the woman and her child were sold for seven hundred dollars to one of those dark, silent figures before her. Who he was; whether he was good or bad; whether he would lead her into tolerable or intolerable slavery—of all this, the bought and sold woman and mother knew as little as I did, neither to what part of the world he would take her. And the father of her child—where was he?
With eyes still riveted upon that sleeping child, with dejected but yet submissive mien, the handsome mulatto stepped down from the auction-platform to take her stand beside the wall, but on the opposite side of the room.
Next, a very dark young negro girl stepped upon the platform. She wore a bright yellow handkerchief tied very daintily round her head, so that the two ends stood out like little wings, one on each side. Her figure was remarkably trim and neat, and her eyes glanced round the assembly both boldly and inquiringly.
The auctioneer exalted her merits likewise, and then exclaimed,
"How much for this very likely young girl?"
She was soon sold, and, if I recollect rightly, for three hundred and fifty dollars.
After her a young man took his place on the platform. "He was a mulatto, and had a remarkably good countenance, expressive of gentleness and refinement. He had been servant in his former master's family, had been brought up by him, was greatly beloved by him, and deserved to be so—a most excellent young man!"
He sold for six hundred dollars.
After this came an elderly woman, who had also one of those good-natured, excellent countenances so common among the black population, and whose demeanor and general appearance showed that she too had been in the service of a good master, and, having been accustomed to gentle treatment, had become gentle and happy. All these slaves, as well as the young girl, who looked pert rather than good, bore the impression of having been accustomed to an affectionate family life.
And now, what was to be their future fate? How bitterly, if they fell into the hands of the wicked, would they feel the difference between then and now—how horrible would be their lot! The mother in particular, whose whole soul was centered in her child, and who, perhaps, would have soon to see that child sold away, far away from her—what would then be her state of mind!
No sermon, no anti-slavery oration could speak so powerfully against the institution of slavery as this slave-auction itself!
The master had been good, the servants good also, attached, and faithful, and yet they were sold to whoever would buy them—sold like brute beasts!
In the evening. New-year's day is at an end. I too have had visits from polite gentlemen, hitherto strangers to me. Among them I shall remember, with especial pleasure, two brothers of the name of D., bankers of the city, earnest and cordial men, who are said to be remarkable for their brotherly affection and public spirit. My countryman, Herr Charles S., has sat and talked with me this evening. He has lived long in New Orleans, and knows many circumstances of great interest; is frank and agreeable, so that his society is extremely pleasant to me.
I am as comfortable in this house as I can desire. I have even enjoyed the bad weather, because it has enabled me to read a little, and to draw, and the latter is a necessary repose and refreshment to me. I have sketched the portraits of some of my friends, and painted that of my little attendant here, a pretty dark mulatto, with lovely eyes, and a grand yellow handkerchief around her brow, tied in a manner peculiar to the negroes of Louisiana. She has hitherto been, comparatively speaking, a happy slave.
"Have your owners been kind to you?" inquired I.
"I have never had a bad word from them, Missis!" replied she.
But—there are slave-owners of another kind in New Orleans.
Sunday, January 5th. Hastily and shortly a few words about many things which have occupied me during the last few days, especially yesterday and to-day.
Yesterday forenoon I visited the prisons of the city, accompanied by the superintendents and two distinguished lawyers. The outward management of the prisons seems to me excellent. Order and cleanliness prevail throughout, as is always the case wherever the Anglo-American legislates. I preserve the following features of the internal management.
I visited some rooms where women accused of capital offenses were confined. Their dress spoke of circumstances far removed from poverty, but their countenances of the prevalence of violent and evil passion. Among them I remarked one in particular, a lady charged with the murder of her husband from jealousy, whose whole bearing denoted boldness and pride.
All these women declared their innocence, and complained of injustice. Each one had her own apartment, but might avail herself of companionship in the piazza which surrounded the building within a court. There sat under this piazza a group of negro women, apparently enjoying the sun, which was then shining warmly. They looked so good and quiet, and they all, especially two young girls, bore so evidently the stamp of innocence and of good disposition, that I asked, with no small degree of astonishment,
"Why are these here? What crimes have they committed?"
"They have committed no offense whatever," was the reply. "But their master having given security for a person who is now bankrupt, they are brought in here to prevent their being seized and sold by auction to cover the demand, and here they will remain till their master finds an opportunity of recovering them."
"You see," said one of the lawyers, "that it is to defend them; it is for their advantage that they are here."
"How long will they probably remain here?" inquired I, cogitating within myself as to what particular advantage could be derived by the innocent from that daily association with these white ladies accused of the darkest crimes.
"Oh, at furthest, two or three weeks—quite a short time," replied the lawyer.
One of the young negro girls smiled, half sadly, half bitterly. "Two weeks!" said she; "we have already been here two years!"
I looked at the lawyer. He seemed a little confounded.
"Ah!" said he, "it is extraordinary; something quite unusual—very unusual; altogether an exceptional case—very rare!" And he hurried away from the place.
Again, and always this injustice against human beings whose sole crime is—a dark skin.
Immediately after dinner I paid a visit to the Catholic Orphan Asylum, where two hundred little girls are placed under the care of fifteen Sisters of Mercy—a beautiful and well-managed institution.
Scarcely had I returned thence, when I was taken by some of my acquaintances to the French opera, where I saw "Jerusalem," by Verdi, which was very well given. The prima donna, Mademoiselle D., is a great favorite with the public, and deserves to be so, from her lovely figure, the nobility of her demeanor, and her exquisitely beautiful and melodious singing, although her voice in itself is not remarkable. Her hands and arms are of rare beauty, and their movement was in exquisite harmony with her singing.
The most interesting scene to me, however, was not on the stage, but in the theatre itself, where the ladies of New Orleans, seated in their boxes, presented the appearance of a parterre of white roses. They were all dressed in white, gauze-like dresses, with bare necks and arms, some of them very bare indeed, and some of them with flowers in their hair. All were very pale, but not unhealthy-looking; many of the young were quite pretty, with delicate features, and round, child-like countenances. Beauty is scarce here, as it is all over the world. The white pearl-powder, which the ladies here commonly use, gives to the complexion a great softness, in which, however, the art is too frequently apparent. I do not object to people in social life endeavoring to make themselves as beautiful as possible, but it should be done in the most delicate manner, and well done, otherwise the effect is coarse, and produces an unpleasing effect.
I sat in a box of the amphitheatre (which is divided into boxes) with an agreeable and musical gentleman, Mr. D., an acquaintance of my friend Lerner H.; and I had placed a beautiful white camellia which I received from him in Mrs. G.'s beautiful dark-brown hair, and had the pleasure of seeing it shining out on her beautiful noble head as she sat in her box in the front row. For the rest, I suffered from headache, owing to the heat and exertions of the day, but was so anxious to be quite well by the morrow, when I was to visit the French Market with Mr. Lerner H., that, by means of strong determination and strong coffee, I succeeded; and accordingly, at six o'clock in the early dawn, I and my cavalier took our way to the French portion of the city.
The French Market is in full bloom on Sunday morning each week, and this also shows the difference between the French popular feeling and that of the Anglo-Norman, who would regard such a circumstance as Sabbath-breaking.
The French Market is one of the most lively and picturesque scenes of New Orleans. One feels as if transported at once to a great Paris marche, with this difference, that one here meets with various races of people, hears many different languages spoken, and sees the productions of various zones. Here are English, Irish, Germans, French, Spaniards, Mexicans. Here are negroes and Indians. Most of those who offer articles for sale are black Creoles, or natives, who have the French animation and gayety, who speak French fluently, and "Bon jour, madame! bon jour, madame!" was addressed to me from many lips with the most cheerful smiles, revealing the whitest of teeth, as I wandered among the stalls, which were piled up with game, and fruit, and flowers, bread and confectionery, grain and vegetables, and innumerable good things all nicely arranged, and showing that abundance in the productions of the earth which involuntarily excited the feeling of a sheer impossibility that there could be any want on the earth, if all was as it should be. The fruit-stalls were really a magnificent sight; they were gorgeous with the splendid fruits of every zone, among which were many tropical ones quite new to me. Between two and three thousand persons, partly purchasers and partly sellers, were here in movement, but through all there prevailed so much good order and so much sunny, amiable vivacity, that one could not help being heartily amused. People breakfasted, and talked, and laughed just as in the markets at Paris, and were vociferous and jocular, especially the blacks — the children of the tropics beaming with life and mirth. The whole was a real sunny Southern scene, full of sunshine, cheerful life, and good humor.
On the outskirts of the market you found Indians. Little Indian girls were seated on the ground, wrapped in their blankets, with their serious, uniform, stiff countenances, and downcast eyes riveted upon an outspread cloth before them, on which were laid out wild roots and herbs which they had brought hither for sale. Behind them, and outside the market-place, Indian boys were shooting with bows and arrows to induce young white gentlemen to purchase their toy weapons. These red boys were adorned with some kind of brilliant ribbon round their brows, and with feathers, forming here also a strong contrast to those pale, modest, and unadorned girls. These Indians were of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes, many families of which may still be met with in Western Louisiana.
In the light of the ascending sun, for the sun was also at this market festival, and sucking the juice of delicious oranges, Lerner H. and I left the cheerful scene, and returned leisurely home by the harbor, where immense sugar hogsheads were stored.
Late in the forenoon I went to church. The minister, who is said to be "a genius," preached of human love in a heathenish way, by introducing the words of a celebrated romance:
"If a man does not trouble himself more about his neighbors than about his cattle and his slaves, he does not deserve the name of a good man."
This will suffice for the sermon and the preacher, who was not devoid of talent, especially in delivery, although that was accompanied by too much gesticulation.
Mr. G. took me in the afternoon to see the French burial-ground. It is really "a city of the dead;" whole streets and squares of tombs and graves, all standing above ground, from the fear of the waters below, as the whole ground here is very dropsical; and among these no trees, no grass-plots, nothing green, with the exception of two single graves; no flowers, nothing which testifies of life, of memory, or of love. All was dead; all stony, all desolate; for neither were there here any living beings beside ourselves. Wherever we walked, we walked between walled graves and tombs; wherever we turned, the eye encountered tombs and bare walls, with nothing over them, with no background except the clear blue heaven, for it was bright above the city of the dead. I thus wandered through these immense grave-yards: it was the greatest contrast which could be imagined to the scene of the morning.
To-morrow I shall accompany Mr. and Mrs. G. to Mobile in Alabama, whither I am invited by Mrs. W. ?? V., whom I have often heard spoken of as a very charming and much celebrated "belle" both in the North and South of the United States. We shall travel by steam-boat across Lake Pontchartrain and into the Gulf of Mexico, on the banks of which Mavilla, now Mobile, is situated.